More than a Service Learning Trip: A Rocha Marine Conservation

Over winter break, eight Waynesburg University students as well as Dr. Christian Hayes, assistant professor of biology, and Dr. Marissa Mendoza, assistant professor of psychology, traveled to Titusville, Florida to work alongside A Rocha Marine Conservation. During this week-long trip, students and faculty did a number of projects along the beaches in Florida. 

Located in Titusville, Florida, A Rocha Marine Conservation is an international Christian conservation organization. According to the A Rocha Marine Conservation website, its mission is to “protect and restore” different “habitats, species and communities.” During their time with A Rocha Marine Conservation, Waynesburg students and faculty were able to live out this mission.

“Our service was focused more around the environment and how can we help local people care for their own environment,” said Dr. Hayes. “One of the big things we focused on were nurdles. Nurdles are plastic little pellets that are created by the petroleum industry, the plastic producers, and then they melt those pellets down to create the plastic.”

Using the nurdle, students on the trip learned how to study and track industrial pollution.

“One of our reoccurring tasks was finding small pieces of plastics, known as nurdles, that had washed up on the shorelines,” said Audrey Dennis, a freshman marine biology major. “Seeing the vast amounts with my own eyes made it clear that there is a problem with plastic pollution, and the issue needs to be addressed as soon as possible.”

Plastic pollution is something common to people living in this environment; however, the effects of this pollution are not always commonly seen. According to Dr. Hayes, it is important that humans become more self-aware. 

“If you look at this room [Dr. Hayes’ office], the majority of things in this room have some sort of plastic in them. The things we’re wearing, the things we’re using, this desk, this lamp; everything has plastic in it,” said Dr. Hayes. “What happens to it? What’s the lifespan of that plastic? How does it influence our health? How does it influence our lives and the ecosystems around us? Just awareness is a big part of it and then trying to find ways of reducing how much plastic we use, because it does help a lot.”

Students, such as Dennis and Alyssa King, senior marine biology major, walked away from the trip with a newfound appreciation for the environment, but not just because of the nurdles. 

“My favorite memory from the trip was definitely going to one of the springs and getting to see wild manatees for the first time,” said Dennis. “It was such a wonderful experience being able to see such large and peaceful creatures in their natural habitats for the first time.

Reflecting on the trip, Dr. Hayes added his own perspective.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me was seeing students get it. As a teacher, my goal is always to educate, to help students learn something and make it stick, something practical,” said Dr. Hayes. “We learn about plastic in classes but it’s not until you see the plastic, you’re wandering around trying to-looking through sand, picking up sand looking for these nurdles and then when you finally find one, you’re like ‘Woah, it’s actually there!”